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The Rays won the Mercer Island Little League AA Championship on May 29 at the Lid Park.  - Contributed photo
The Rays won the Mercer Island Little League AA Championship on May 29 at the Lid Park.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Rays win MILL AA Championship

The Mercer Island Little League baseball team, the Rays, held off a late rally by the Angels to win the AA Division Island Championship, 15-11, on May 29 at the Lid Park. The game marked the culmination of a tumultuous two-week playoff between the six teams of the AA Division, comprised mainly of third and fourth-graders from the Island.

The Rays’ potent offense erupted early and often in the first four innings of the game. Their bats pounded the Angels with a barrage of hits and opened up a seemingly insurmountable lead. Aggressive base running, great pitching and stalwart defense pushed the Angels to the brink with only two innings remaining in the standard six-inning game.

Battered but not beaten, the Angels summoned their strength and began a comeback in the bottom of the fifth inning. Finding the power that brought them to the championship, the Angels scored enough runs to stay within striking distance with only one inning left to play.

The Angels renewed their assault in the bottom of the sixth and the resurrection appeared to be on. Dipping into the bullpen, the Rays mustered enough gutsy pitching to keep their opponents from walking off with the coveted championship; but the Angels still pulled close. In the fading twilight of the Lid Park at 9:14 p.m., the Rays nabbed a fly ball with two outs and the bases loaded to retire the side and clinch the championship.

Both teams travel to the Eastside this week to finish the season in the Bellevue City Tournament.

‘Thunder Nation’ takes Pasco by storm

Three years ago, the Mercer Island Travel Team Thunder program went to Pasco for a Memorial Day tournament against some of eastern Washington’s best teams, and everyone came home with just one win to show between them. But the program is clearly on the rise.

Following a thrilling weekend of baseball, ‘Thunder Nation’ came home with one first-place, one second-place and two third-place finishes, posting wins over some of the strongest teams from the other side of the state at every age group.

Thrilling title

for 10U team

The 10-and-under Thunder team, coached by Steve Stenberg and Mike Gallatin, stormed through pool play, defeating Richland 13-3, Pasco 12-1 and Yakima 12-2, and then winning the first game of the single elimination round, 5-0, over Benton City. During the Monday semifinal, they finally broke away from a scrappy West Valley team, 10-4.

The Islander team met the Federal Way Knights, also 5-0 and a very talented team, during the title game. The Knights jumped out early with three runs in the first inning and two runs in the second inning to take a 5-1 lead after two innings of play. The momentum was heavily in favor of the Knights as five Islander players struck out in the first two innings. After holding the Knights to only one run during the next two innings, the Thunder team managed to narrow the difference to three runs at 6-3 after four innings. By that time, all of the other Thunder games had finished, and a crowd of over 100 MI players, coaches and families from the 9U, 11U and 12U teams had gathered to root on the 10U.

Andrew Pickles held the Knights scoreless in the top of the fifth and then the rally began. After a lead-off walk to Peter Lopes, the Thunder team rattled off four consecutive hits to tie the score at 6-6 and had runners on second and third with no outs. After a pair of strikeouts and Eric Kim at the plate facing an 0-2 count, the Knights pitcher threw a wild one that got away from the catcher. As the Thunder fans stomped on the bleachers and rattled the fences, Josh Stenberg scooted home. Although the trailing runner was thrown out, leaving Kim at the plate, the go-ahead run had scored.

But the drama was just getting started. Nathan Gallatin came in to finish the game in the sixth, looking for a save but facing the heart of the order. After a pop-fly to Lopes at second base for the first out, the Knights’ clean-up hitter drilled a solo home run on a full count over the fence to tie the game at 7-7, silencing the Mercer Island faithful. Gallatin regained his composure and struck out the final batter, looking on a 3-2 count with runners on second and third to close the door on the Knights’ rally.

In the bottom of the sixth, Kim came back up and battled to a 3-2 count against the Knights’ closer. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Kim smashed a double to the fence over the center fielder’s head. The next batter was Brenden Yan, who laid down a bunt about eight feet in front of home plate. The throw to first by the Knights was just in time but glanced off the first baseman’s glove. The backup player was late as Kim steamed around third base to score the eighth and winning run.

Kids, coaches and families stormed the field, and the infield quickly became a sea of maroon and white. “Man, this is just amazing,” said Stenberg, surveying the mass of people surrounding his team.

The top 10U hitters for the tournament were: Josh Stenberg, .688, with six doubles and 12 RBIs; Anthony Scalzo, .667, with eight RBIs; Cameron Coe, .538, with 10 runs scored; and Michael Petrie, .500, with eight RBIs and nine runs scored. Strong pitching and defense limited the team’s opponents to 17 total runs over the course of six games.

Second place

for the 9U team

The 9-and-under Thunder, coached by Brad Myers, Ed Dreyer and Greg Bjarnason, placed second, losing only to the Gig Harbor Gators in a hard-fought final game. Their path to the final took them through West Valley, 7-4; Richland, 8-3; Kennewick, 10-3; and Pasco, 6-3. Timely hitting by Noah Huse, Bligh Bjarnason and Peter Ernst, stellar pitching from Jacob Evans, Kenny Koning and Drew Christofferson, and slick fielding from Luke Boksem, Johnny Vandervelden and Alex Brown proved the difference. During the championship game, Thunder took a tie game of 1-1 into the third inning, led by a clutch double over the center fielder by Justin Myers and two key catches by Eric Dreyer in right field. But they couldn’t keep the momentum going during the later innings, giving up five runs late in the game en route to a 7-2 loss. Despite the loss, coach Myers was proud of the way that his team played.

“As our first tournament against this level of competition, second place was a great result,” he said. “The kids played hard and showed a lot of heart, especially in the heat.”

Third place

for 12U team

The 12-and-under team, coached by Eric Rothenberg and Gary Furukawa, made it to the semifinals by getting past Pasco, 2-1; West Valley (the eventual champion), 8-5; Gig Harbor, 8-1; and Richland, 12-0. Only a tie with Yakima, 4-4, blemished Mercer Island 12U’s pool-play record.

During the semifinal, Mercer Island came up just short against a very tough Yakima Rebels team. After the Rebels scored a run in the fourth inning to take a 1-0 lead, the Islander team came back in the fifth inning with Zach Rothenberg hitting a single and scoring on a single by Josh Hartmann. The Rebels answered with a home run in the bottom of the fifth. With the score 2-1 in the top of the sixth with two outs, Jacob Stenberg drove a ball deep to left field for what appeared to be a game-tying home run, only to have the Yakima left fielder reach over the fence and bring the ball back to secure the victory for the Rebels. In the third-place game, Thunder once again took it to the Richland team, cruising to a 6-3 victory.

The top 12U hitters for the tournament were: Jacob Stenberg, .500; Zach Rothenberg, .471; Daniel Sims, .450; Christopher Lawler, .444; and Ben Furukawa, .313. 12U pitching was excellent throughout the tournament, giving up 16 runs (14 earned) over seven games for a team ERA of 2.00: Christopher Lawler, 0.70 ERA; Peter Welch, 0.90 ERA; Sam Peterson, 2.50 ERA; and Keegan Ogaard, 3.10 ERA, led the way. Over the course of seven games, the MI pitchers struck out 46 batters in 39 innings and walked only seven.

Third place

for 11U team

The 11-and-under team, with coaches Brock Mansfield and Earl Bell, assisted by Jim Hibbert and Bill Lawler, had a similar experience to the 12U team. After wins against Gig Harbor and Mukilteo, the 11U team came up against tournament favorite Pasco. William Mansfield and Brandon Lawler combined to throw a one-hitter, but it was not enough. Facing what coach Brock Mansfield said “was some of the best pitching we have seen all year,” MI failed to score a run and lost a 2-0 heartbreaker with Pasco’s two runs coming on their only hit of the game, a home run following a walk.

After pummeling a West Valley team, 8-3, in the loser-out bracket, Mercer Island got another shot at Pasco during the semifinals. But once again, the usually hot Mercer Island bats went cold as the team came up short 5-1.

In the third-place game, Thunder got its bats back and scored early and often en route to a 6-3 win over Richland.

The top 11U hitters were Aidan Plummer, .529, with five doubles; Brandon Lawler, .500, with four doubles; Nick Taylor, .500, with two home runs; Alex Bell, .471, with four doubles; and William Mansfield, .438, with one home run, one triple and one double. MI pitching limited opponents to 15 earned runs in seven games for a 2.23 ERA and collectively struck out 63 batters (nine batters in each game).

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